Survival in Art: Finding Shelter in Painting

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Survival in Art: Finding Shelter in Painting

Viktor Tsyganko, whose last name means ‘gypsy’ in Russian, mysteriously appeared in New York in 1990 and has led a nomadic lifestyle on the streets of SoHo and in various institutions. Disoriented and homeless, he was discovered by an art dealer in 2002 who granted him shelter in the basement of his gallery. The art dealer, who wishes to be unnamed, acted as his patron and assisted him in finding shelter at Art Pathways of Pathways to Housing, an organization which uses creative recovery treatments to assist the homeless. Tsyganko, who was taken in as a resident artist and diagnosed and treated for schizophrenia, inevitably wanders into the streets searching for something that stability cannot offer.

From the supplies given by his anonymous patron, Tsyganko has produced a series of paintings and works on paper over the past five years. To the astonishment of his patron, who has gained a sensitive understanding of the aesthetics of painting from his extensive career, there was “surprisingly no discernible iconographic evidence in any of the dozens of works that have been produced of the artist’s mental condition”. Tsyganko, who may suffer from hallucinations, delusions, and memory disorder, demonstrates a remarkable technical command which is consistent throughout his body of work.

Born in the Ukraine, Tsyganko was educated at the prestigious Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Industry in St. Petersburg. Many of Tsyganko’s artworks are related in style and content to the works of celebrated Europeans. Working in the Russian Avant-Garde tradition, Tsyganko’s artistic corpus encompasses an eclectic array of suprematist, cubist, art deco, constructivist, and expressionist elements. Most notably, Tsyganko is specially fond of Kazimir Malevich’s artworks of the Russian Suprematists.

The portraits exhibited are a selection from a series of painting completed of Tsyganko’s patron. Completed over a decade, these paintings are an insightful character study revealing the way the world looks at Tsyganko through a monochromatic lense. These paintings demonstrate an exceptional propensity for portraiture and a keen sensibility for capturing the essence of any particular modernist style. Reminiscent of expressionist paintings, the agitated brush strokes of “Painting of Two Men” emote the subject’s contemplative state of mind which, despite its cold frigidity, animate the painting with its restless gloom. In contrast, the painter’s brush is concealed in “Portrait of a Man”, mirroring a pristine art deco contour in its monochromatic sheen. Like his lifestyle, Tsyganko seems to wander through these various styles like memories or structural paradigms to organize his mind.

In the existential crisis that faces the art world today, it is truly an oddity to find a gem that channels candid sincerity without a high-brow critical gaze. One finds this true of outsider art or art brut, which Jean Buffett describes as “works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses” created from the mentally ill and the naive who have little connection to mainstream art world or art institutions. Outsider is contrasted to “cultural art”, the artworks produced by professionals within “the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade”. As the art of the ‘insane’, outsider art exists outside the boundaries of official culture.

It is even more peculiar to run across Tsyganko, who is mentally ill, but cannot be grouped with outsider artists due to his academic training. Literally and figuratively, Tsyganko is difficult to place –his virtuosic precision is at a stark contrast to the chaotic and compulsive tendencies symptomatic of his disorder. As philosopher and art historian Donald Kuspit proclaims, modern art is full of dialectics, and many contemporary artists work within post-modernist culture in polemical fashion by challenging or ignoring particular modernisms. Tsyganko, who stands as an anomaly in categories of contemporary art and social spaces, rides the plurality of novelty’s waves, each a mediary mode to release his experiences onto cardboard canvases.

In essence, Tsyganko is a eccentric conglomeration of disorder, creativity, and survival. His patron, in firmly stating that Tsyganko’s paintings are not “the work of a madman”, refers to the technical virtuosity of his paintings. If his madness does not show through onto the canvas, one wonders what connection Tsyganko’s illness must hold to his art. In 2010, a research team at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found a correlation between highly creative people and those with schizophrenia by studying the brain’s dopamine communications system. Using PET scanning, the team studied thirteen mentally healthy, highly creative men and women and found similar dopamine receptor activity in the thalamus and striatum, areas of the brain that process information before reaching conscious thought, as those of people with schizophrenia.

Scientists suggest that this biological mechanism demonstrates a “crucial link” between creativity and psychopathology. Past studies have also indicated that highly creative people are more likely to have mental illness in their family. This is not to say that all who have mental disorders are particularly creative or that all highly creative individuals are mentally ill. The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” or DSM-IV, the standard manual used by the American Psychiatric Association, defines mental illness as “a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual… associated with present distress or disability… [and] a manifestation of a behavior, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual… [and] must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event”. In other words, being ‘mentally ill’ does not simply mean to display odd tendencies, but is diagnosed according to a specific criteria of symptoms in contemporary psychological practice.

Rather, these scientific studies lend insight into normality by exploring the deficiencies and potential revealed in abnormality. The lead researcher at Karolinska, Fredrik Ullen, writes in PLoS ONE, “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box.” In this respect, the relationship between Tsyganko’s illness and technical capabilities resonates with savant syndrome, a condition in which individuals with developmental disorders of the brain demonstrate profound talents that exceed normal capabilities. Most with savant syndrome share in common a prodigious memory, often photographic memory, and many have superior artistic or musical abilities. In the abstract of his paper for The Royal Society, cognitive scientist Allan Snyder argues that “savant skills are latent in us all”, and those with savant syndrome “have privileged access to lower level, less-process information” but “owing to a failure in top-down inhibition, they can tap into information that exists in all of our brains, but is normally beyond conscious awareness”. Other theories suggest that mental resources which would have been used for empathizing skills such as social interaction and communication have been steered towards systemizing skills to cause sensory hypersensitivity and enhanced perception.

Despite a widespread tendency to romanticize mental illness and idealize depression in artists, gaining an understanding of mental disorders and the ‘artistic mind’ is a complex endeavor. Myths of the ‘mad genius’ or ‘heroic melancholy’ associated with artists such as Viktor Tsyganko, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Jackson Pollock, is often narrated as the creative genius who is tragically doomed to both suffer and create by his art. However, inside the relationship between eccentric personalities, irascible tempers, unstable moods, and prolific creativity, the motivation to create contains an intensely personal meaning to each artist.

To Tsyganko, who must cope with the debilitating symptoms of schizophrenia, the act of painting may offer a sense of stability which he otherwise may not find. Tsyganko, often fixating on a particular subject, will produce a series of artworks on the same subject for months or years. By psychoanalytic interpretations, his repetitive behavior may be a compulsive act to exercise control. In “Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art”, Ernst Kris writes, “In creations of the insane… these productions are no longer meant to influence the mind of an audience, but they are intended to transform the external world. By his word the insane artist commands the demons, and by his image he exercises magic control. Art has deteriorated from communication to sorcery”. In creating polished and beautifully crafted works of technical precision, art may represent to Tsyganko a facet of the world which he has skillfully mastered and can control.

The autonomous sense of self that art can offer may be the reason why Tsyganko feels so compelled to lead his nomadic lifestyle away from shelter. Though Tsyganko is more stable when he takes his medication, a requirement to receive housing at Art Pathways, his return to the streets may be because of its side effects. Most significantly, the quality of his artwork declines, which may be due to the mental deflation or the hand tremors his medication causes. Just as living organisms seek shelter, Tsyganko may be searching for a home in his own way. As each painting expresses a microcosm of structure and ambiance in its defined space, art to Tsyganko may be a sanctuary to create his own reality.


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Humphrey, Elizabeth. “The Mad Artist’s Brain: The Connection between Creativity and Mental Illness.” Scientific American. 22 Nov 2010: n. page. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. <>.

Snyder, Allan. “Explaining and inducing savant skills: privileged access to lower level, less-processed information.” Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society. 364.1522 (2009): n. page. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. <>.

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Wikipedia contributors. “Savant syndrome.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Web. 27 Apr 2012. <>.

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